Abolish Whiteness

Jason Okundaye

Two photographs have come to define Saturday’s demonstrations in London: one of a Black man, Patrick Hutchinson, rescuing a white far-right protester, apparently from death; the other of a far-right protester, Andrew Banks, caught with his pants down, urinating next to the memorial for PC Keith Palmer, who was stabbed to death in the Westminster terror attack of 2017.

Both photographs, and the ways they have been framed by politicians and the media, invite a moral (and nominally apolitical) judgment, asking us to draw conclusions about the two men’s contrasting characters. Hutchinson’s actions – and his impressive strength and stature – are an expression of a heroic, cool and noble masculinity. Banks, on the other hand, is at once an anti-patriot and an ugly embodiment of Little England: boorish, vulgar and, in the words of Keir Starmer, ‘beneath contempt’.

Let’s be clear: what makes Banks ‘beneath contempt’, on this view, is not his attending a far-right protest, but his violation of public standards of propriety in urinating next to a memorial. It’s true that his actions neatly expose the contradiction in sacralising the bronze sculptures of Westminster while desecrating the memorial of a man who died defending Westminster from an Islamist terrorist. But it is also true that loutishness appears a greater sin than racism. Despite footage circulating of far-right protesters singing ‘burn the black cunt’ before setting effigies alight, and a war veteran calling for the execution of Sadiq Khan, I have seen no evidence of efforts to trace or investigate these people for hate crimes.

In an interview with ITV News on Sunday, Hutchinson said: ‘It definitely gives me a positive feeling that … together we can change the way things are at the moment. And what we did just embodies that, just to show other people that … it’s not black or white, we’re a human race.’ Admirable sentiments. But the appropriation of them by the right-wing media is a disgrace. The front page of the Sun yesterday featured the famous photograph of Hutchinson, with the headline: ‘It’s not black versus white, it’s everyone versus racists.’

The words are not only a sentimental bromide intended to delegitimise and deradicalise the current movements of Black Lives Matter activism. They are also a cynical attempt to dissociate the Sun and related media from the violent cycle of racism and anti-blackness. In 2016, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, in unequivocal terms, correlated the reporting of the Sun and the Daily Mail with escalating racist violence and hate speech in the UK. If it’s ‘everyone versus racists’, the Sun cannot claim to be on the side of ‘everyone’.

It is just as urgent to reject the idea that ‘it’s not black versus white’. As abolitionism surfaces as the central organising principle of the second wave of Black Lives Matter activism, we need to recognise that one of the things that needs to be abolished is the category of ‘whiteness’ itself. The existence of whiteness is dependent on the subjugation of a racialised other. As such there is no way to extract or preserve whiteness from white supremacy. Without the subjugation of Blacks through a project of racial essentialism, whiteness as a category ceases to exist. Whiteness is not a biological reality, but a description of social relations defined by class, ownership and property rights. Hutchinson’s aim to redeem white individuals of racism is fine, but we cannot redeem whiteness itself.

The Guardian’s interview yesterday with Hutchinson and the four men who helped him is further fuel for this depoliticisation. ‘Maybe it will change the view of racists,’ one of them, Lee Russell, said. ‘I hope it shows that whatever they think of us, we’re cool, we’re good – we just saved your life.’ I wonder where that leaves Black people, or other people of colour, who have no interest in – or capacity or opportunity for – similar acts of heroism; who are not ‘cool’ and ‘good’, but feel righteous hostility towards whiteness and are not interested in diplomacy. Interpersonal acts of sacrifice, forgiveness or kindness cannot be the panacea for racism. And Black activists cannot be required to follow an established code of behavioural and moral conduct. The promotion of respectable Blackness is a gift to white supremacy: it obscures the social relations that define white power by identifying racial aggression as the preserve of a non-respectable, insurgent minority, apparently unrepresentative of a more gentle and tolerant majority of Blacks. I would urge everyone who centres kindness and diplomacy to consider this carefully.

While Hutchinson enjoys a media circus, Banks has been sentenced to 14 days in prison for the crime of ‘outraging public decency’. His actions are an embarrassment for the far right, and evidence that Saturday’s events had less to do with a sense of patriotic duty than with treating racist chauvinism as an opportunity for a brawl and piss up. But leftists shouldn’t rush to celebrate Banks’s sentence. Urinating in public usually carries a fine (if it’s punished at all). What Banks did is repugnant, but does it really merit two weeks in jail? We shouldn’t be too eager to embrace the carceral logic of the state, or accept ‘public revulsion’ (in the words of the sentencing magistrate) as grounds for punishment. British standards of ‘public decency’ could easily work against us, particularly in light of the home secretary’s plans for a 24-hour arrest-to-jail pipeline for those who vandalise statues.

Far-right protesters should be condemned not for individual acts of outraging public decency, but en masse as an expression of the apparatus of white supremacy. And we should resist, too, any narrative that tries to defuse Black Lives Matter activism as non-threatening and essentially about ‘equality’ rather than liberation and abolition.


  • 16 June 2020 at 10:04pm
    Marmaduke Jinks says:
    The chap Hutchinson seems a decent cove.
    The chap Banks seems something of a twerp and I presume drink was involved.
    No generalised conclusions to be drawn from these two incidents.

  • 17 June 2020 at 9:42am
    S Goodfellow says:
    Having discovered that my belief in kindness, diplomacy and equality is proof that I’m a white supremacist I’m going to offer myself up for re-education. Down with the Four Olds!!

    • 20 June 2020 at 1:36am
      eddougher says: @ S Goodfellow
      You should consider writing a book and calling it, "Life and Death .........London."

  • 17 June 2020 at 12:40pm
    Piers Hammond says:
    I agree !

  • 17 June 2020 at 3:55pm
    Joe Morison says:
    When my children were little, I used to tell them that I was pink, their mother brown, and that they were gold.

    • 17 June 2020 at 6:36pm
      XopherO says: @ Joe Morison
      Very appropriate, but where does it get us with the issues? One thing missing from the argument/ debate is xenophobia. It underpins racism, and whereas people may balk at a mildly racist comment, given the laws etc. they have no problem with saying something obnoxious about the French ( current main target re Brexit) or the Germans (don't mention the war.) My French wife was subject to almost daily negative comments about France in the media and indeed to her face by people you would have considered quite intelligent. We are now thankfully in France and I, a Brit, have not experienced anything similar. But the excuse for francophobia is that the French reciprocate - they do not. I cannot see racism diminished without dealing with the ingrained xenophobia in the British, or should I say, English.

    • 18 June 2020 at 7:54am
      Joe Morison says: @ XopherO
      You’re right, it doesn’t get us anywhere with the issues. I have strong feelings about all this but it’s difficult talking from a position of such privilege. You’re right about the xenophobia here, it can be very ugly; but I do think there’s a strong element of teasing the French which comes from genuine affection - the way siblings might who are sure of each other’s love. If I couldn’t be British, I’d be French; I worship at the temple of Proust; but I still loved the joke in the first episode of ‘Yes, Prime Minister’ where Sir Humphrey explained to Hacker that the UK’s nuclear capability had nothing to do with Russia and everything to do with France.

      On the bigger issue, I will say that the moment of Bryn Male’s rescue by Patrick Hutchinson and his friends felt to me like one of those moments when, in Alan Bennet’s phrase, history runs over the points. I dread to think where we’d be if Male had been killed, he would have become a martyr to the extreme right around the world, and people who had just begun to think that BLM might be on the right track would be repelled back to their delusions. Instead BLM has never been more attractive to those who used to dismiss it, and its opponents’ nature has never been more obviously revealed.

      I’d also say to Jason Okundaye that while his anger and disgust at the right-wing media is entirely justified; neither organizations nor people change suddenly, and there’s no point killing an organization if something just as bad will take its place. Things change gradually, and the Sun and the Mail should be applauded for the way they covered Hutchinson (interesting that the Telegraph was the exception) while insisting that this in no way excuses their many transgressions. A lot of those newspapers’ readers would have reacted with fear if they’d seen Hutchinson walking down the street towards them (I have a black friend who had a t-shirt made with ‘You see …’ on the front and ‘… I didn’t mug you’ on the back), now those same people will be a bit less frightened - some of them might even start to question why they were frightened in the first place. That’s the way change happens, tiny bit by tiny bit; it’s unfair but it’s the world.

  • 17 June 2020 at 4:18pm
    staberinde says:
    Jason, you're getting carried away with yourself.

    This is the country that wouldn't elect Corbyn and just voted to validate Brexit. If you think there's a majority in the country that favours abolishing whiteness, or that might support BLM activism that's 'threatening', you're reading the wrong tea leaves.

    Racism is quantitatively and qualitatively different in the UK compared to the US. So like it or not, BLM will get nothing without the support of Sun and Heil readers. There's a certain amount of shaming and responsibility they can accept, and once you go beyond that you've lost them.

    Topple Colston? Fine, who cares. Churchill was racist? Yeah, but he saved us from the Nazis, so you're missing the point. Nelson and Drake? Go whistle.

    Wouldn't it be great if we subjected deaths in police custody to the same level of scrutiny as air crashes (Chris Rock's idea)? Wouldn't it be tragic if this didn't happen because BLM was perceived to be too threatening and too unfocused?

    Learn from Labour's defeat: be focused on the small number of meaningful, tangible changes we want. Not a laundry list. Not semiotic rabbit-holes. And not distractions. What's BLM's equivalent of solidarity with the Palestinian cause? Write it down, then vow to never, ever talk about it.

  • 19 June 2020 at 9:51am
    cgo says:
    A custodial sentence for that far-right reprobate is ludicrous. What good will it do him (or public safety) to spend 14 days inside? As the author notes, setting sentences based on public opinion is a dangerous and unpleasant precedence. Perhaps some community service cleaning public loos would have been more appropriate.

  • 19 June 2020 at 3:51pm
    XopherO says:
    To Joe Morison: I think the 'affectionate ribbing' of the French is the English excuse for being negative. Between friends sometimes, yes, but generally our experience (outside metropolitan London) is not good. At least you are positive - but beware English 'humour'. I'll respond to your Yes Minister gag with a funny story. A young man in one of my wife's French classes told her there were no birds in France - they had all been eaten!
    But racism and xenophobia are not going to be overcome by one act of decency.
    And pace Staberinde, not that many folk read the Sun these days. The Daily Evil has changed its tune on Brexit somewhat but to what effect? And did Churchill save the UK. Really? He and his government and British and Commonwealth forces played a part. But so did the English Channel (Britain's real saviour over centuries), the Russians who were attacking while British forces were at home (23 million dead), the Americans, and folk in those countries that were occupied. He spoke well but made some big errors, fortunately not big enough to lose the war. We won the Battle of Britain, but German fighters were at the disadvantage of having to carry more fuel etc. etc. Let's have some balance and not false gods.
    Actually, I despair for the UK at the moment. Brexit has given xenophobia and racism a big boost. And whatever happens post-Brexit it will be the fault of the EU and those pesky foreigners. BAME folk are 'foreigners' who happen to stick out more than others, and are consequently subject to more abuse, discrimination and prejudice. Racism and xenophobia are probably too deeply engrained - all that can be done is to try to diminish the effect on those targeted.

    • 20 June 2020 at 7:46am
      Joe Morison says: @ XopherO
      In defence of Churchill (for all his sins), while his importance to the allied victory is usually overplayed by his loudest supporters, it was very important. Counterfactual history is as pointless as it is beguiling, but if we’d followed the Halifax route (and we know how that would have ended), then Hitler would not have been fighting on two fronts and may well have got to Stalingrad before the winter set in. It’s also uncertain whether the US would have entered the European war after Pearl Harbour if we’d just submitted, and where they would have invaded from if they had.

      How to judge historical figures is a difficult question. My admiration of Aristotle is not tarnished by the wrongness of slavery never occurring to him, because everyone in that society just seemed to treat it as an inevitable part of life. Gladstone (the son of a slave owner), on the other hand, is reprehensible because he resisted abolitionist measures as untimely while accepting that they were ‘a good idea in principle’. The context that a life is lived in is as important to judging it, as the sentences surrounding a word is to determining its meaning.

      And, I’m more optimistic than you. There has been a repulsive spike in racism since Brexit, even in London, but I still believe we’re moving in the right direction - I see it in the young and all around me. ‘Black skin, white palm, same blood’ is the slogan plastered on the walls round here, I see the youth in this city of every class and colour embracing that message.

    • 20 June 2020 at 9:03am
      XopherO says: @ Joe Morison
      I wasn't meaning to denigrate Churchill's contribution, he played a major part, particularly at the start. The ill-equipped expeditionary force was a disaster, and it is sometimes forgotten that the surrender- monkey French, with British troops held up the German advance for long enough to let over 300,000 troops evacuate. My father was an RAF radio operator guiding planes over Dunkirk - he was one of the last to leave (mentioned in despatches) But it is a cherry picking argument to say Churchill 'saved' the UK. And if only Gladstone had got the Home Rule bill through...
      I hope you are right about racism and xenophobia. I just have the feeling we have been here before with hopes raised, and lots of meaningful discussion...

    • 20 June 2020 at 12:15pm
      Joe Morison says: @ XopherO
      And my father was a bomber pilot and ended up in Colditz. Perhaps your dad guided mine!

    • 21 June 2020 at 9:45am
      ianbrowne says: @ Joe Morison
      Just a note about Gladstone and the context of his life. He managed to raise that mix of Christian self certainty, moral blindness and hypocrisy to a new level. I doubt whether one in a thousand of his defenders (or more likely, one in a hundred thousand) knows much about him. One aspect fo his life which, sadly, has not been brought into focus is the Egyptian War. There are good grounds for believing that Gladstone’s administration enaged in a bit of “sexing up” “a dodgy dossier” on the unrest in Egypt. It was felt that the Egyptian regime might renege on its debts and that the war was launched to protect the interets of Britsh bondholders. At the time of the war a third of Gladstone’s portfolio, 40,576 pounds, was in Egyptian bonds. The British victory over Egypt transfromed this into half a million pounds. It was very fortunate for this deeply religious man that the national interest and his own personal financial interest should coincide so happily. It was just unfortunate that so many Egyptians had to die to ensure Gladstone and the other bondholders were not out of pocket.

      I can’t help thinking here of two other deeply religious Prime Ministers - Thatcher and Blair. The former’s religious beliefs meant she had no qualms about having tea and scones with a torturer and the latter seems very comfortable in the company of torturers and theives from some of the former soviet republics. Plus ca change...

      I’m happy to judge Gladstone by what I take to be universal standards of morality, rather than some relativistic or post-modernist nonsense. I’m afraid he doesn’t come out very well, either as a politician or as an individual.

    • 21 June 2020 at 12:15pm
      Joe Morison says: @ ianbrowne
      I agree with you about Gladstone, but it’s not post-modern relativistic nonsense to say that a person can only be judged in the context of their world. It would be such nonsense to say that the moral value of actions depended on their context: slavery in Ancient Greece was as immoral as it is today, but good people supported it then whereas only the truly despicable support it today.

    • 21 June 2020 at 1:59pm
      XopherO says: @ ianbrowne
      I suspect that Blair is responsible for many more deaths in the Middle East than Gladstone, and the toll continues. But he still allowed to appear on TV and radio as some kind of guru. Context?

    • 23 June 2020 at 4:55pm
      Ian Tully says: @ XopherO
      The UN embargo on Hussein's Iraq for which Blair was one of the strongest advocates certainly killed more people than Gladstone ever did. It is an atrocity that has been over-shadowed by the Iraq wars. Generally Gladstone was an anti-imperialist, you have to wait for Rosebery for Liberal Imperialism.

  • 21 June 2020 at 2:39pm
    Gilles Ivain says:
    What a great piece, thank you.
    'And Black activists cannot be required to follow an established code of behavioural and moral conduct': I am wondering whether the problem goes even further than this, in implicitly expecting black people (after the last 400-500 years!) to act as the moral barometer or personification of idealised ethical purity for the whole human race.

  • 21 June 2020 at 3:22pm
    Melinda says:
    Black Lives Matter is not about individual racism. Of course decent people condemn racist behaviour from individuals. But BLM appears to be about removing the systemic racism that affects black people. For example the systemic racism that results in disproportionately more black people dying in police custody. Just being black makes white people behave differently. Even very nice white people. Reni Edo Lodge's book 'Why I'm no longer talking to white people about race' should be a standard text for people who want to understand what it's like to be black in the UK. I found it enlightening. 'Race' is unscientific. It was invented to justify treating Africans as property or as children. The profits from slavery made Britain 'Great' and rich. The profits from British imperialism, personified by men like Cecil Rhodes, also made Britain 'Great' and rich. The question is what do we do now? Teach everybody this bit of history? Take down statues of Rhodes and limit the scholarship to Black Africans and the descendants of enslaved Africans? And there is the tricky issue of what to do about Churchill who was responsible for the deaths of millions of Indians by famine.

  • 21 June 2020 at 10:40pm
    Terry Murphy says:
    You only have to substitute "Jewishness" for "whiteness" to realize what an utterly misguided, hate-inducing screed this is. Shame on you, LRB, for publishing such filth!

    • 22 June 2020 at 5:43am
      Bob Beck says: @ Terry Murphy
      If you're being satirical, the joke didn't land. If you're serious: that is the very model of a false (absurd) equivalence.

      White people have never needed the equivalent of an Anti-Defamation League; and any attempts at same (e.g., David Duke's "National Association for the Advancement of White People") have been and are simply vehicles for white-supremacist ideology, neither more nor less.

  • 22 June 2020 at 3:31am
    pacop says:
    Let's say whiteness is abolished and the mental construct no longer exists for anyone. How long would it take us to collectively invent something else to divide our sort of people from the other ones?

  • 23 June 2020 at 11:11am
    Christopher Wright says:
    i refer the writer to the excellent Storyville documentary on the Black Panther Party, screened on June 22 on BBC 4. In particular the speeches made by Fred Hampton, which made it clear that the Party was not anti-white, but anti-racist, as he sought to make common cause with poor whites against the institutional racism of the US state apparatus. Perhaps this is something the BLM movement could consider, as there is a strong argument that the government has stoked nationalism among the white working classes to divert from the failures of post-industrial capitalism.

  • 25 June 2020 at 11:21pm
    olywood says:
    We're now getting to the crux of what this is really about. LRB (whether knowingly, out of some misplaced sense of impartiality) have given people like Jason Okundaye just enough rope to hang themselves with. Whiteness itself is in contempt here. Silence, as the placards tell us, is indistinguishable from violence. And people like DiAngelo, who can't be long for a review in this publication, tell us that all whites are racist, simply in virtue of being white.

    What we're actually seeing here is the emergence of some deeply troubled, openly racist individuals, being enabled by members of the very race they're setting out to demolish. It really is beneath contempt, and gives the equally repugnant Tommy Robinsons of this world all the ammunition they need to proclaim their very racial identity is under threat.

    Yet, probably won't be buying LRB ever again after this. Truly abysmal.

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